To be French is to be a citizen of France, regardless of your race, origin, or religion. This is a vaunted and lofty ideal to hold and one which offers a reassurance of acceptance and fair treatment.
In reality, the path to inclusion, no matter what the system of integration, is fraught with anxiety, tension, and the vestiges of history. This is a story familiar to countries across Europe where diversity and the perceived irreconcilable nature of Muslim integration and identity preoccupy national debates, policies, and actions. Instead of economic and social policies to improve the situation of all members of society, there is an unhealthy focus on culture and religion.
Our report Muslims in Marseille examines the lives of ordinary individuals in the third district of the city and their hopes and aspirations. Its findings indicate a strong Marseillais identity and a compatibility of French values with their ethnic and religious backgrounds. However, it also highlights the struggle faced by residents in areas of the city which are blighted by poverty and where unemployment, poor housing, and limited civic and political participation should be urgent policy requirements.
We spoke to Jocelyn Cesari, a French political scientist and a research associate and lecturer at Harvard University. As an advisory board member for the At Home in Europe Project Muslims in EU Cities series, she shares some of her thoughts on secularism and the debate on identity in France.
Can you tell me a little bit about the national rhetoric on Muslims and Islam in France and the role identity plays in the debate?
Islam and its expressions (from dress code to prayers) have been defined in the last 15 years as the opposite of secularism and equality that French define as the pillars of their national identities.
The Open Society Foundations recently released a report on Muslims in Marseille. Are there any findings in the report that you think would surprise people in France?
Indeed a lot of people will be surprised to learn that on average Muslims behave like the other citizens of Marseille. They are also very proud of their local identity as much as the other people of Marseille (something I had the occasion to investigate myself more than 10 years ago with other colleagues with whom we published Plus Marseillais que moi, tu meurs! ("More Marseillais than me? No chance!").
What do you think is the appeal of Front national, a far-right political party that is anti-Muslim/anti-Islam?
The National Front started in the 1980s as an anti-immigrant party that has reshaped its discourse to become anti-Islam, adjusting to the greater fear of cultural difference brought by the presence of Muslims as nationals and citizens.
Do you think there is a difference between the national perception of the failure of Muslims to integrate and the reality of everyday integration at the local level?
Yes it does. Everywhere, not only in Marseilles, the local level is where integration processes happen (civic/cultural/economic).
What do you think policymakers can do to help Muslims and other minorities feel more accepted in France?
They should emphasize the “normality” of Muslims: they are not exceptional because they are Muslims; actually Islam does not influence very much most of their choices when they act as citizens.